Flamboyant singer-instrumentalist Little Richard, whose high-voltage, keyboard-shattering R&B singles supplied lift-off for the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll revolution, has died. The musician, whose birth name was Richard Penniman, was 87, although some sources say he was older. His death was confirmed by his son, Danny Jones Penniman, who told the New York Times the cause was cancer.
Richard’s manic 45s for Los Angeles indie label Specialty Records — “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Keep A-Knockin’” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” — became major crossover hits in the pop sphere and influenced succeeding generations of rockers.
Pompadoured, mustachioed, slathered with pancake makeup and popping his mascara-painted eyes — “Ooh my soul, I’m the prettiest man in rock ‘n’ roll,” he declaimed — and graced with an ego as outsized as his personality and his voice, the daringly androgynous musician established himself as the wildest performer of his musical era.
An inaugural inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and a 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award honoree, he left his mark on notable white rockers who succeeded him. Elvis Presley covered four of Richard’s hits in his breakthrough year of 1956. The Beatles — who shared a stage with him on a 1962 U.K. tour — paid explicit homage to his style in performances like their cover of “Long Tall Sally” and their own homages, usually sung by Paul McCartney, like and “I’m Down.”